Letters To A Young Comedian

Monday 26 July 2004, The Stage

If you are in some way in the public eye there comes a moment in your life when you have to decide whether or not to write an autobiography. For Kenneth Branagh this moment arrived early. As he sat there he must have thought: “Well I’ve just learned to walk, it’s time to write down my experiences.”

For most people though the decision comes later in life, usually towards the end of a career. David Nobbs is the author of dozens of TV comedies and novels and has met a host of interesting people throughout his life - small surprise then that his recent autobiography I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today is richly entertaining. Full of funny stories and the kind of insights that only a comic writer can have.

Nobbs, in common with all autobiographers, had to make the decision about how critical to be of people he has met along the way. Slagging your enemies off and settling scores is not a very attractive quality in a person and yet what is the point of writing about your life if you’re not going to be honest?

Nobbs, by and large, is gentlemanly and prone to giving people the benefit of the doubt but, occasionally, you get a whiff of disapproval that makes you wish he had given full rein to his darkest thoughts. He recounts how funny Tommy Cooper was, then adds baldly: “I didn’t like him offstage I found that all the vitality and charm left him. He seemed a selfish man who drank too much and showed no spark of warmth.”

Given how generous Nobbs is to other characters in his book this is strong and intriguing stuff. I was momentarily reminded of the novelist Anthony Burgess’ two-part autobiography which was full of brutal revelations about people, principally himself. There is not much vitriol in Nobbs’ books but it should certainly feature on the reading list of every young comic writer.

At one point Nobbs refers to the “brilliant” Jack Rosenthal whose work has been celebrated on TV lately. The author of an intimidatingly large amount of outstanding comic drama, Rosenthal was also clearly a man that only an idiot would not fall in love with.

Maureen Lipman is no idiot and she must have crushed the hopes of dozens of women when she bagged the great man for herself. Accounts of their marriage lead one to believe the pair had two splendid children and a right laugh together.

Seeing Rosenthal’s stuff and reading Nobbs’ book you could not fail to fear somewhat for the future of TV comedy drama. Although we have more and more channels, programmes are made much more cheaply than in the past. Why make a comedy that might not work when you can churn out a dozen reality shows for the same money? It is a sad thought that in years to come the likes of these two comic titans will not be given many opportunities on TV. But let me not end on a gloomy note. Here’s to those two literary japesters.

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